Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Rearview Mirror

Simple things have a way of grabbing my attention.  Lately, that simple thing has been the warning on the outside rearview mirror on the passenger side of the car.  It reads, "Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear to be."   Every time that mirror is used, the warning is there to read.  And, over the years I have learned it is true.  Going to the extra effort of twisting the neck to take a look is not a bad idea.  It makes for safer driving.
But, there is another side to it.  You cannot drive the car if you are always looking in the rearview mirror.  Checking it is ok, but the best thing to do is to keep most of our driving energy focused on what is ahead.   It makes me think of something Jesus said about our inability to plow a straight furrow if we are constantly looking behind to see how we are doing.  When life gets to cluttered with what is behind us, or when we stay too focused on the rearview mirror of our life, getting into the future God has planned for us is made even more difficult  than it is when we have all our energy focused on what is ahead. 
I guess it is one of those end-of-the-year things.  What is behind cannot be forgotten.  Some of what is back there taught me some valuable, if not hard lessons, but it is also necessary to move forward in life.  What can be handled obviously needs to be handled, but pre-occupation with wrong choices or unavoidable negative stuff is not where God intends for any of us live.  There are those things like grace and forgiveness and mercy out there in front of us and when we keep out eyes on them, the need to constantly be looking behind is no longer such a necessity. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


The late notes of "Joy to the World" have faded in the air.  The choirs have recessed.  The pages have been turned away from the story of the Bethlehem story.  All the watchers have abandoned the nativity scenes.  Fire and smoke will no longer be seen above the Advent Wreath.  The preachers have breathed a sigh of relief that it is done for another year.   Worship Committee members put their heads together briefly after the Christmas Eve rendering of "Silent Night" to plan their return to the Sanctuary to restore its appearance to normal.   Churches, so recently a hotbed of activities and programs, now lay in silent darkness.
It is a strange phenomena since today is THE DAY.  Today is Christmas.  Unlike Easter where everything moves toward Easter Sunday for a climaxing moment of worship, Christmas is celebrated out by the time the day arrives.  For the church the Christmas climax comes before it and the day of Christmas comes and goes in most places with hardly a holy whimper.  What we do on the day centers not around holy symbols, but around a decorated tree.  What happens on this day does not center on Jesus, but on family.  Please do not think me a Christmas Scrooge.  Please do not think I am anti-Christmas tree, or against family gatherings.  I vote for both of them as well as many of the other things which are viewed as traditional Christmas stuff.
It is just now that it is all done and I find myself left with only the stillness, I find it odd that on the day designated as the day of His birth, Jesus will hardly be given a thought and because of all that has gone on in our churches, no one will give the omission a second thought.  And I cannot help but wonder what God thinks about the way we will give Jesus very little attention today.  But, then again, maybe for Him, it is just like too many other days.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Advent XXIII

Many churches practice the ritual known as "The Passing of the Peace" on Sunday morning.  If not done every Sunday, it is often observed as a part of the Holy Communion ritual.  It is a moment for reaching out to someone as we often do when shaking hands, but instead of saying "Good morning," the spoken greeting is "The peace of Christ be with you."  And the person who hears the greeting responds by saying, "And also with you."  Actually, it has always seemed more like a prayer of blessing than a greeting.  It can be a powerful moment in worship as it affords us the opportunity to physically touch another in a way that seeks to be a blessing. 
This Christmas Eve I wish it were possible to touch hands with those who read this blog and exchange this very special moment of blessing.  To bless  and to be blessed with the peace of Christ is more than just some verbal social exchange; instead, it is to enter into a sacred experience with another.  The blessing of the peace of Christ is something worthy of a time of meditation and prayer.  What does it look like?  What does it feel like?  How is it experienced?  To bless another with the peace of Christ is to offer the blessing of order in the midst of a world filled with such chaos.  It is to be blessed with a prayer for a meaningful life filled with divine purpose.  It is to be able to live in a right relationship with our God.  And it is to be able to live with others in relationships that are filled with grace, and forgiveness, and mercy.  Such is how the peace of Christ looks to me on this Christmas Eve.
It is a blessing I pray for each of you who read these words and share this moment with me.  Will you imagine with me that we are standing face to face and that we are reaching out to take one another's hand?  In such a moment on this Christmas Eve, I would say to you, "The peace of Christ be with you."  If you would like to respond and complete the ritual of blessing, you can send an email with the words, "And also with you" to   Once again I say to you, "The peace of Christ be with you."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent XXII

Today the church pushes aside the somber notes of Advent.  Today the church pushes aside the mood of waiting.  Today the church sounds the notes of Christmas and celebrates in the now what we have been anticipating for so long.  In many places the crowd gathered is only surpassed by what we experience on Easter Sunday morning.  The Sunday before Christmas is a great moment of worship for the church.  The music of Christmas fills the sanctuary and the preacher experiences a moment of trying to say in a new way a timeless word that has been preached for centuries.   A wise layman told me some years ago not to worry about Christmas Sunday preaching because, "Anything you might say has been said by now."
Of course, he was right.  Yet, still his words grant no license for taking lightly the task of proclaiming the message of the Incarnation.  It is a message which surpasses adjectives and superlative language.  It is a message which goes beyond the ability of mortal tongues.  After all, the first time it was announced, angels were given the joyful responsibility of proclamation.  Was it not an angel who said, "I bring you good news of great joy for all the you is born...a Savior."  (Luke 2:10-11)  Yet, today is a day for mortals like me and others who dare to preach to tell the most important story ever told for the ears and hearts of the people of the world.

A Savior has been born for us.  The child in the cradle in Bethlehem was born for a cross on Golgotha.  His life was different from beginning to end.  It was a life lived to show us all how much we are loved by God and the lengths to which He will go to enable us to claim that we belong to Him.  He came to save us from the one thing we can do nothing about--our sins.  When we sin we have no eraser to wipe the slate clean again.  Starting over is not an option.  But, through this One born in Bethlehem what we cannot claim as possible is made possible.  Once again we can experience what it is to be at one with the God who has brought us into being and given us a divine purpose for living.  What a gift He gives to us!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent XXI

While traditional nativity scenes portray the shepherds and the Wise Men standing alongside of each other in a pose of worship and adoration, it is not likely their paths crossed.  The shepherds arrived shortly after the birth of Jesus.  The Wise Men came some time later.  The shepherds went according to the direction of an angel.  The Wise Men followed a Star.  The shepherds lived and worked near Bethlehem.  The Wise Men came from afar.  However, both brought gifts.  The shepherds brought the not so visible, but much needed gift of external validation.  The Wise Men brought very visible gifts that would prove to be greatly needed.

As we all know from Word and song, the Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  These gifts speak of the blessing of divine provision granted to those who live in faithfulness to God.  Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to home, but to go to Egypt.  As he is obedient to the guidance of the angel in a dream, the holy family becomes a part of a refugee community living in a land far away from the deadly threats of Herod.  The gifts of the Wise Men had a very practical purpose.  Using them as currency, Joseph could buy, barter, or trade and provide what was needed for his family during those refugee years.  When the gifts were placed before Jesus, neither Mary nor Joseph likely understood the significance of these expensive gifts, but God did.

From beginning to end we see the way God leads and provides for those who are open to His bidding and seek to respond to it in faithfulness.  Before the nativity couple knew of their future need, God was bringing it to them through these strange kingly looking men from the east.  The shepherd's gift cared for the soul and spirit.  The Wise Men's gift cared for the needs of the body.  Both speak of the totality of the Father's provision for those who seek to live in obedience and faithfulness.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Advent XX

By the time the shepherds arrived, it was all over but the crying of baby Jesus.  History reports them as the first ones to visit and worship the newborn Son of God.   Like the men from the east who would come later, the shepherds of Bethlehem brought a gift.  It was the gift of external validation.  Verse 18 of Luke 2 tells us that Mary and Joseph were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  Without even looking at the page of the Word, we know what the shepherds told the parents of Jesus.
They told them about the angel who shattered the darkness of the night and the mundane routine of their lives with his presence and a Word from God which said, "...Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord."  (Luke 2:10-11)
Mary and Joseph were surely amazed for as far as they knew, no one else knew about the special nature of their child.  Before Mary had become pregnant an angel had appeared to her telling her that she was going to conceive the Son of God in her womb and he would be named Jesus.  A short time later Joseph had an angel come to him in his dream life telling him that Mary's child was of the Spirit and should be named Jesus for He would save His people from their sins.  For the first time Mary and Joseph heard what had been revealed to them from someone else who could only know because it had been heard from heaven.
The witness of those shepherds was the gift of external validation.  Their words must have caused the new parents to be overwhelmed with an assurance that what they had dared to believe in their hearts was indeed the reality of God's plan.  Any doubt was at that moment replaced with wonder and amazement.  There is something about the reading of this story every Christmas Eve which causes us, no matter how many times we have heard it, to catch the excitement and wonder of that moment in the incredible story which is beginning to unfold.  A Savior.  God knew.  Mary and Joseph knew.  The shepherds knew, too.  Soon, very soon now, we will hear the story once again and we, too, we will swept away afresh by its wonder.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Advent XIX

The Bible is full of stories of people who have great faith in God.  Of course, when the word faith is mentioned in the context of scripture, Abraham is usually the first one who comes to mind.  However, he was only one of the many who had incredible trust in God.  The story of the birth of Jesus enables us to see the faith of two young people who had Abraham like faith.  These two teenagers, Mary and Joseph, reveal an incredible trust as they put their future squarely in the hands of God.  Even though both knew that Mary's story of her pregnancy was not going to be believed by the "tongue waggers" of their hometown, they both came to a place of trusting God to act according to His Word.  When they left Bethlehem with their newborn son, God directed them to go to Egypt instead of  their home village, so  they went becoming members of the refugee community.  By the time they were directed to return home, the "tongue waggers" had gone to fresher subjects. 

Their faith in God took them on the incredible journey of being parents to the Son of God. It took them from Bethlehem and waiting family in Nazareth to Egypt.  And, finally, it led them back home when it was safe and their son's life was no longer in danger.  It is indeed a story of incredible faith and they were little more than children when the Abraham like journey began.  The faith they modeled was a risky faith, one which was dependent upon God, and one which went outside the boundaries of common sense and understanding.

In a book entitled Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer the author, Brother David Steindl-Rast writes a word about Abraham that applies to Mary and Joseph as well:  Abraham's faith, his trust in God, was able to uphold even beliefs that seemed contradictory on the level of mere intellectual reasoning."  Even as it made no sense for Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice, neither does much of the nativity story make sense if you are Mary and Joseph listening to the voice of God being spoken through an angel telling you that the Savior of the world is going to be your son.  It surely required an amazing journey of faith, one much more arduous than a mere journey to Bethlehem.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Advent XVIII

Over the years there has been those who spoke of being a New Testament person to the extent that they had no use for the Old Testament.  As they would conclude, "It is the story of Jesus which is important, not all that Old Testament history."  If the New Testament writers had written with such an attitude what we know as Holy Scripture would certainly be different and, in some way, less believable.  These early Apostles and leaders of the early church who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote the Word often made mention of the prophetic writings as they told the story of Jesus and proclaimed the gospel message.    The Apostle Paul was such a one as he wrote at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,...which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy scripture..."
Paul and others far more versed in the Hebrew sacred writings than most of us saw much that pointed toward the birth and the life of Jesus.  The prophet Micah spoke of Bethlehem being the birth place.  The prophet Isaiah spoke of the one called "Emmanuel" and the son being given.  Some scholars even point to a verse that speaks of a virgin bearing a child.  Jesus saw in the writings of Isaiah an understanding of the purpose of his ministry.  It is also the prophet Isaiah who described the suffering of the Messiah and the ministry of the voice who would cry out in the wilderness.  What we read about in these days was not written in a vacuum, but was understood by those first century Apostles and believers to be nothing less than fulfillment of ancient sacred writings.
This act of God which we think of as the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is a part of the plan that we see being developed from the earliest pages of what we know as Holy Scripture.  To read the entire Word is to realize that Jesus was not an afterthought on the part of God.  Jesus was not Plan B because Plan A went wrong.  The birth of Jesus as Savior was instead God's plan for handling the awful predicament we created for ourselves as a result of stubborn insistence on living life on our own terms.  The Savior did not just happen.  He was born.  He was sent.  He represents the intentionality of a loving and merciful God. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Advent XVII

Waiting is not exactly something most of us do with much ease or grace.  Watching folks in the various check out lines is illustration enough.  Not even the Express Check Outs move fast enough.  But, it is not just in the Christmas rush that we are able to see this characteristics in others or ourselves.  What we usually do while waiting is look like we are in some kind of serious distress and voice our impatient displeasure.  Of course, there are the occasional souls who plan for the waiting moments in their lives and open a book or engage someone in a conversation that helps pass the time.
The folks in the early church found themselves in a season of waiting after Jesus ascended into heaven.  Before Jesus left the earth, He said some things to those who were nearest Him which led them to understand that  He would be returning before all of them had died.  With this bit of insider information, many believers figured it was going to be a very short time before Jesus was seen again on planet Earth.  When it did not happen, those in waiting did some natural things.  Some started questioning the whole idea of Jesus returning.  Others countered with trying to explain the delay by doing some fancy chronological work.  The whole business created a good bit of confusion among those who were standing in the waiting line with their heads turned toward the clouds.
In the third chapter of II Peter, the Apostle seeks to address what was happening in the church as those within talked about the issue.  In verse14 of chapter 3, he writes, "...beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by Him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation."   It is still good advice for us as we consider that we are in Advent,  a liturgical season which underscores the value of waiting.  Instead of hurrying the season, the Word found in the Advent readings encourages us to make the most the wait.  It, too, is a time not to be wasted, but a time for preparing ourselves to stand once again in the presence of the celebration of the birth of Jesus in our world. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent XVI

Sometimes it is necessary to lay aside carefully made preaching plans and respond to what is impacting the hearts of so many.   The shooting death of those 20 children and 6 teachers in Newtown made yesterday such a day.  Like many others preachers who dared to preach yesterday, I breathed many prayers as I sought to offer some Word from God.  I started with a text from Galatians which declares, "...when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman..."   (4:4).  It was a time filled with great poverty.  Mary and Joseph belonged to that community of the poor.  It was a time when the biggest sword ruled the world.  It was a time of refugees and after the birth of Jesus the Holy Family became a refugee family in Egypt.  It was time when children were massacred by a political ruler who felt his power threatened.  Midst the joy of Bethlehem was the wailing grief of Mothers whose innocent children were killed.
The world seems to have changed so little.  When Jesus came into the world as a baby, it was a world filled with the darkness of evil.  His coming and living and dying did not take away the evil.  He did not change the world.  What He did change was the hearts of people like each of us.  We live in an evil world, but as those changed by Jesus, we go out bringing change to the pieces of the world in which He has put us.  It truly is an Advent thing.  Something like the tragedy experienced in recent days causes us to pray that Jesus would come quickly to bring an end to the evil which would rob children of their future and at the same time it causes us to live in the present moment in such a way as to bring the influence of His kingdom into our world as we encounter it. 
Preaching on such days is a frightening moment for any preacher.   There is such emotion present in the hearts of so many people.  So many are looking toward the pulpit for a Word of hope, a Word that somehow will help in the process of making sense of something that makes no sense at all.  No one in his or her right mind would choose to even try; yet, it is that call heard a long time ago which makes this preacher preach in such a moment, nonetheless. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent XV

After the sermon and after the benediction comes the ritual of the door.  The preacher stands while parishioners pass.  It is not an uncommon thing for some remark to be made about the sermon.  The most popular is, "Preacher, I enjoyed the sermon."   Of course, there are also more honest things said.  "I want sermons that make me feel good when I leave on Sunday morning,"  was something I heard one Sunday.  I took it she had a problem with the sermon and maybe even the preacher!

Such folks would never stay in a church where John the Baptist was the preacher.  After a Sunday of his preaching, they would find themselves another place to worship--a place more comfortable where less offensive and threatening words were said.   It was likely that way for some who went out to the Jordan to hear this preacher about whom everyone was talking.  When he opened his mouth to preach saying, "Repent!  Get our life in order!  God is ready to do something.  You better get ready and you better do it now!" a lot of folks likely looked for their children and headed home.  One thing is certain. John was not into making people feel warm and fuzzy.

If we are really interested in getting ready for Christmas, we, too, will forget our need to feel good.  We, too, will listen to the message of this wilderness preacher who tells us that the most important thing is to make sure there is nothing in our heart which would cause us shame if Jesus were to suddenly appear in our midst.  Looking in our heart brings us to the hard questions of getting ready.  Have I forgiven those who hurt me?  Is being a servant  of God really more important to me than making sure those around me regard me with an attitude of respect and appreciation?  Is loving God and my neighbor really the guiding directive of my life?  Hard questions.  Heart questions.  Such is where John the Baptist takes us.  Who wants to go?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Advent XIV

Whenever God acts, He certainly does so in a radical and decisive way.  Putting the birth of Jesus into such a context underscores this truth.  In a manner totally inconceivable to any of us, God acted placing Himself through His Son in a manger where adoring parents were little more than peasants who would soon become political refugees.  He lived among us owning nothing except his clothing and died as a criminal guilty of terrible crimes.  It is not the story any of us would have written had our assignment been to write one about the way God loves us.
One of the things made clear by John the Baptist is that those who follow Jesus must do so with a similar radical spirit.  Baptism in the Jordan was not something which one could be "wishy-washy" about.  Going into the water for a ritual of cleansing reserved only for Gentiles was the thing John's preaching required.  Standing at the edge of the river with toes in the water was not enough.  One either went into the water or chose to stay dry.  The same kind of spirit was necessary in acting on the message of repentance.  It is impossible to walk two ways at the same time.  One way has to be forsaken and another chosen.  From the beginning John makes it clear that decisive and radical action is required of those who would follow Jesus.

Unfortunately, the words radical and decisive no longer seem relevant to those of us who would be Jesus followers.  We are the masters of compromise and living in the gray.  Blending with the culture around us is preferable to standing out as different while living in the midst of it.  Advent is calling us to walk another way.  It is calling us to walk the uncomfortable way.  It is calling us to be decisive and for God's sake to be a radical believer.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Advent XIII

John the Baptist is not the kind of guy who holds anything back.  Calling the Pharisees and Sadducees, "A brood of vipers!"  does not mark him as one who lacks boldness and courage.  If he were a United Methodist preacher, we would call it a "moving sermon."  And, of course, as he preached about a baptism of repentance, he was telling the ordinary folks who listened that only a radical response would be enough to ready themselves for the One who was coming to baptize not with water, but with fire.  Repeating a few prayers and tossing a few coins in the collection was no longer going to cut it.  Only a radical life style change would do.
This old fire breathing, scripture thumping, prophet would have quite a task in our ecclesiastical culture of watered down religion.  He would tell us in a heart beat that what passes for discipleship in the church today is mostly form and ritual with little substance and power.  He would warn us there is no time for spiritual pretence and church politics.  He would tell us baptism is not a sign of social respectability, but a mark that we are available to Jesus to do whatever He desires for us to do.  And, he would get in our face, so close that we could smell the locust and honey on his breath, and tell us to quit doing some of the stuff we are doing and start doing some totally different things.
It is no wonder John the Baptist is Advent's most unpopular guy.  Do any of us really want him around?  Does anyone really want to hear what he has to say?  Is anyone really ready to take serious this business of repentance?  Is anyone interested in a changed heart and a changed lifestyle?  What one of us would not choose the current spiritual status quo over the radical Word John puts in our face and our heart?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent XII

From the very beginning of the John the Baptist narrative, the plan of God is clear.  Actually, the divine plan was obvious long before the birth of John.  The Old Testament prophet Isaiah spoke of the one who was to come as the "voice crying out in the wilderness."    The gospel writers made the connection between what this ancient prophet wrote and what they saw in the life of John.   And then there is the birth story.  Like Abraham and Sarah, John's parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah were getting on in years.  They had given up on having a child.  However, it was Gabriel who showed up in the Temple telling Zechariah he would have a son and that "he will be great in the sight of the Lord"  and that he will go "With the spirit and power of Elijah..."  (Luke 1:13ff)  Later after his birth Zechariah would speak of his newborn son as the one who  would go before the Lord to prepare His ways. (Luke 1:76)
This child, born in a miraculous way, has a powerful role to play in the story of Jesus.  It is no wonder the gatherers of lectionary materials give him such a visible and strategic place in the unfolding story of the One who came to save us all.  None of us should object to him taking the spotlight for a moment for he is the one called by God to help folks like those ancient Hebrews as well as each of us as we look to see what is really in our hearts.  Always there is preparation of the heart to be done when Jesus stands before us.  John's message of repentance is an important one for us to hear and to take to heart.

John the Baptist is the voice of repentance crying out in the wilderness. A wilderness is a place empty of those things which sustain life.  This secular culture in which we are so immersed is like a wilderness for it is empty of what is necessary to give and sustain life.  It promises something other than emptiness, but it will always be an unkept promise.  The voice crying out in the wilderness is every bit as important today as it was when John was washing sinners in the Jordan River.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advent XI

By the time Jesus showed up for baptism,  more than mere curiosity was driving people to the Jordan River where John the Baptist was doing his preaching and baptizing.  John was a wilderness guy and it was from the edge of the wilderness that he preached so anyone who heard him had to leave the populated areas like Jerusalem or other villages and make the day trip to his ministry place.  By the time Jesus was baptized, folks were talking about this wilderness preacher who fit the mold of an ancient prophet.  Those who made the journey did so more with intentionality than curiosity.  Those who were going knew what to expect; yet, their need drove them out there, nonetheless.
Of course, what they heard was a word telling them they needed to make some changes in their lives.  There is no way to hear John the Baptist preach about repentance and come to any other conclusion.  Those in need of repentance are not those who have their spiritual house in order.  Those in need of repentance are not those who are walking in step with the will and purpose of God.  Instead, those in need of repentance are those who are walking in a way that speaks of disobedience to God.  So, those who went to hear John heard this message about making inner change which would result in getting ready for the One who is coming from God.  John was saying, "There is something wrong with you and you better get it straightened out before it is too late!"  Still, folks went to the Jordan to hear and to respond.
When we get serious about what John was preaching, we begin to understand how his message is calling us to get ready for the Christ whose birth we are preparing to celebrate.  The preparation we are called to make is not about doing the things called for by our secular culture, but by doing the hard work of examining our heart to see what needs to be done in order for us to be in the presence of the Holy One.  It may not be what we want to hear in these days, but hearing and responding is the only way to truly make ourselves ready to go the manger of Bethlehem.  Otherwise, it will be a wasted trip.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Advent X

The early days of Advent are filled with lessons from Isaiah.  Some of them are more well known than others because they have been put to music.  To read them is to be struck by the images created by this prophet who lived so many centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Some of his words speak of the birth of Jesus and some of them seem to transcend even that time taking us to a point in history which is still out there for us. 
The 11th chapter of Isaiah is one of those passages which cannot be missed during Advent.  With language that is incredible to comprehend, he paints images of the Kingdom of God.  Most folks think of the Kingdom and start thinking about heaven with its pearly gates, streets of gold, and personal mansions.  Isaiah gives us a different starting point.  His not-so-concrete images leave our imaginations with room to go beyond the things we can see.  Beginning in verse 6 of the 11th chapter is that image of the animals of prey being together with the animals normally thought of as being preyed upon.  Wolves living with lambs, the calf and the lion together, the cow and the bear grazing alongside each other, and the child playing over the hole of the snake are images of the new Kingdom created by the One who comes with the power of peace in His hand and heart. 
It is not something any of us would conceive if we were asked to describe the way the world would look if the authority of God was fully established.  Yet, this picture of what is disorder being restored to a natural order which would have preceded what we know as the Fall of humankind is a powerful thing to consider.  Even without the streets of gold, being able to live in such a condition of peace and oneness with those thought to be adversaries or foes would be more than the mind could conceive.  Yet, such is this Kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus in Bethlehem and which will be established as He comes again to restore His new creation.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent IX

Unlike some who may be looking for shepherds and wise men, I have always found myself anticipating the arrival of John the Baptist on the liturgical stage created by Advent.   His place of importance is underscored by the fact that each of the four gospel writers give him space in their telling of the story of Jesus.  Even the words of Jesus add to the prominence of his place.  Of course, John the Baptist would shun such attention as he always made it clear that he was about pointing folks to Jesus and not to himself.
Of course, pointing people away from self is an admirable quality, especially in our day where so much time is trivialized by tweeting all about me and what I am doing in the moment.  But, another thing which makes John stand out is the way he is unafraid to speak clearly and boldly.  He never shows any concern for those who might be offended by truth speaking.  He called the religious leaders of the day "a brood of vipers"  and he preached a hard word when he told the people who came to hear him that there was something radically wrong with them.  Winning a popularity contest was certainly not his goal. 
He was not a people pleaser, but surely it must be said of him that he was a God pleaser.  Seeing him back on center stage in these early days of Advent reminds us of how important it is for us to live in a way that is pleasing to those around us.  Sometimes that inner need of ours puts us in a position of compromising what we know as the Word by which we have been called to live.  And, when we see ourselves in such a way, listening carefully to the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts may cause us to hear the thundering, powerful voice of John the Baptist preaching to us,  "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near."  Heeding the voice will put us on the road of being ready for the coming Christ.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Holy Place

Last night I went to a holy place.  I was not expecting to experience such a strong sense of the presence of God when I left home to visit the garden at the Michael Guido ministry in nearby Metter, Ga. Though he died at age 94 in 2009, Michael Guido is best remembered for his "Seeds From the Sower" ministry. Each year the ministry sponsors "The Night of Nights," using the appeal of Christmas lights to attract people to a garden where the message of Jesus is proclaimed in a most unusual way. When my youngest daughter ask us to go with her and our youngest grandson, I thought it was just going to be a Christmas light extravaganza and it was with an estimated 2,500,000 lights shining in the darkness. Not being a real fan of looking at Christmas lights, I went mainly to be with our grandson a little longer.
I had hardly settled into my walk through the garden when I started sensing that I was walking in a place that was both peaceful and holy. The lighting accented Biblical stories like Noah and Jonah, but mostly it was about the story of Jesus. Scenes took visitors from nativity to the tomb. As I walked mostly in a silent reverence, I wondered what caused the place to be experienced as such a holy place.  One possibility which immediately came to mind was the praying of Micheal Guido.  But, then I noticed that the garden was immersed in the Word of God.  People were stopping along the walk to read markers which had Biblical readings such as the Beatitudes, the 23rd Psalm, the Ten Commandments, and the Parable of the Sower.  There were also places for hearing the Nativity Story and the Resurrection Story.  It was a garden which encouraged visitors to read the Word of God.  The Word simply was hanging in the air at every turn. 
We sometimes forget the inherent power of reading the Word of God aloud.  It reminded me of a staff member at Richmond Hill who by her invitation and example initiated a ministry of reading the Word from Genesis to Revelation in the sanctuary.  For almost a year staff members would go in the sanctuary, read aloud a portion of the Word, and mark it for the next reader.  It made a holy place even more holy.  Imagine.  You and I could read the Word aloud into the world from where we are.  Imagine the difference it would make.

Advent VIII

Advent  is full of surprises.  In the first Sunday gospel reading, it is Jesus coming in the clouds!  And, before the surprise is assimilated comes the second Sunday and the shocking presence of John the Baptist.   It leaves the surprised and shocked shaking and scratching their heads wondering, "Where is baby Jesus of Bethlehem?"  Most folks would figure that a season which gives preparation to Christmas would have at least taken us to the manger by now, but, alas, such is not what happens as the gospel lessons for Advent are given permission to guide our entrance into the season.
There is a sense in which John the Baptist seems completely out of place.  He is the wilderness man who washes only once in a while, whose breath smells like dried locust and honey, and who is in real need of a barber chair.  No Father would want their daughter to bring him home and introduce him as a future son-in-law.  If somehow he had showed up at the manger scene, he would have been a more disruptive presence than those excited men who smelled like wet sheep.  And finally, no respectable preacher would ever consider giving him the Sunday morning pulpit for by the time he finished with his ecclesiastical rantings, every pew sitter would be offended to the point of leaving.
It makes us wonder why in the world he shows up every year on the Advent calendar as such an important person.  The answer is surely found in reading what each one of the gospels has to say about him.  If there is not enough time to read all four, then Luke would be the place to go.  This gospel writer not only introduces us to John the Baptist, the preacher of the wilderness, but also gives us the kind of information which enables us to see him as one called by God at a specific time for a specific purpose.  He was a true forerunner.  He clearly had one purpose and that was to get people ready for Jesus.  Maybe he is not such a bad fellow to put on center stage in these days after all.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Advent VII

Hope is a much needed commodity for humanity.  Without it there is little left to keep us going.  It does not matter about our age, our income level, or the century in which we live.   More important than we often realize is this intangible thing called hope.  Certainly, the ancient Hebrews who found themselves living in Babylon as exiles had a great need for it.  Without hope for a better day, without hope that God would once again act in mercy and restore them, they would have surely ceased to exist as a nation of people.  Reading the dialogue found in chapters 63, 64, and 65 of Isaiah reveals this and much more to us. 
From the perspective of the people, they are in a mess because God made them stray from the way of righteousness by separating Himself from them.  There is this all too familiar theme of "God,it is Your fault!" running through the part of the dialogue that comes from the exiled Hebrews.  As God responds He does so by reminding the people they have it wrong.  "I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek Me....I held out My hands all day long to a rebellious people..." (65:1)  With the Hebrews there is this  mixture of repentance  and self vindication.  With God there is a strong word about accountability and an even stronger word about what He is going to do to restore His people to a spirit of rejoicing.

These exiled sinners had every reason to hope.  Though they had made some terrible choices, God had made the choice not to give up on them.  History has a way of repeating itself again and again.  As we move into Advent we are certainly mindful that we have messed up in many ways, but what we anticipate in the Christ-event is a sure reminder that God has made a way for us to be restored to wholeness and joy.  The good news is there is hope for all who have strayed from the ways of God, even if they are folks like you and me.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent VI

One of the big Words in the New Testament readings for Advent is the Word:  "Keep Awake."  This Word comes from Mark.  Basically, Matthew is telling us the same thing as he writes:  "Be ready."  And Luke joins with them as he says:  "Be alert!"  While there is a little difference in translation, the same intent is being sounded.  Living with an expectation that Jesus will return does not lend itself to sleeping, or careless living.  (NRSV)
It might be possible to read these Words and wonder exactly what it means to live in such a condition, and surely some have used the language to justify all sorts of attitudes and life styles. But when we read what the Apostle Paul would later write to the church at Romans, we understand more clearly what it means to "Keep Awake!"  In Romans 13:11-14 we find how we should be living if we are serious about living in a way that keeps us ready for the coming of Jesus.  Paul writes, "Let us then lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.  Let us live honorably as in the day,..."  Intentionally choosing to do good and living in such a way that no action or thought or attitude needs to be hidden is how Paul calls believers to live.  As we live in such a manner, we are living as one who is living awake and alert and ready.

And, so Advent takes us once again on that journey that leads to the inner chambers of our heart.  It is always much easier to get things ready on the outside then it is to ready our hearts for the Christ who has come, is coming, and dwells in us in the moment.  The difference in a life driven by doing is a life lived far differently than one driven by being. It is the difference in looking inside and outside.  It is the difference in understanding the difference in trying to justify the wrongs which are a part of our life and being accountable for them.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Advent V

Giving attention to the Second Coming of Jesus at this particular time of the year has always seemed a bit odd to so many who find that their attention is becoming increasingly focused on Christmas.  In fact, a part of our discomfort with the season of Advent has to do with the way it causes us to keep the celebration of Jesus' Bethlehem birth at a distance.  We are ready for it now and not only does the early Advent theme keep us from going there, it puts into our view the discomforting Word about Jesus returning to the earth with power, glory, and accountability. 
Matthew gives us some advice in what we know as Matthew 24:44 as it says, "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."  Nothing about this Word is what we really want to hear as the secular culture starts cranking up its version of what is important for us to do in the next few weeks.  According to what the culture around us is saying, getting ready is about doing.  It is about spending. It is about decorating.  It is about parties and social gatherings.  It is about putting the pedal to the metal and not letting up until Christmas Day is past. 
The Word of God as it is spoken through Matthew, the disciple, takes us down a different path.  Getting ready is about the heart.  It is about looking inward with eyes that are unafraid to see what truly drives our living.  It is about making sure the precious God given days we have are not being wasted with frivilous and trivial pursuits.  It is about living today as if it might be the one which brings us into the presence of the Almighty King of Kings.  The kind of readiness called for by the Word is one which not only prepares us to celebrate the Christ-event known as the Incarnation, but also one which prepares us to live each day as if it were our last.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Advent IV

The first Sunday in Advent was marked with gospel lessons which make the skeptical more skeptical, the faint-hearted more fearful, and the faithful more hopeful.  While each of the first three gospels for the day speak about the return of Jesus a little differently,  (Matthew 24:36-44, Mark 13:32-37, Luke 21:25-34) each agrees on a couple of things.  First, Jesus is going to return into human history to completely establish His Kingdom.   And, secondly, since the time is unknown, living in a constant state of readiness is the smart response.
Of course, not everyone listens.  Some regard these words as so outlandish and unrealistic that disregard is the only appropriate response.  Others find in the return of Jesus a powerful hammer to beat sense into the unfaithful.  And, finally, what might seem like a reason to be filled with dread and fear is instead only something which whets the anticipation of those who believe and long for the day of seeing Jesus in a way impossible for human eyes.   This Biblical Word about Jesus returning to earth as King may not be a popular notion to consider, but it is, nonetheless, a teaching which merits our serious attention. 
It was no matter of casual concern for those first century disciples.  Actually, they worked, shared the gospel, and lived out their lives expecting Jesus to return in their lifetime.  Of course, a lot of time has passed since the days of the early church, but living with that expectant attitude is a far better choice for us than living as one who never really expects such a day of accountability to be encountered.  Even as today is lived differently if we realize it could be the day of our death, so is life lived differently if we realize it is constantly lived on the threshold of the return of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Advent III

As we move into Advent, we do many different things to help us capture the spirit of the season.  Advent Wreaths and Chrismon Trees are certainly two of the things we normally see in our sanctuaries during these days.  And, as we move deeper into the season, we will see the places we worship adorned with greenery and other decorations.  One thing we do each week which helps us focus on what we are about is praying a prayer prayed almost every Sunday of the year.  Of course, it is easy enough to figure out the prayer is known as "The Lord's Prayer."
What is there about this familiar prayer that helps us focus on Advent? As we pray the prayer, we come to the words, "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."  It is often true that we do not realize for what we are praying.  It is likely true with this part of the prayer for we pray it week after week and often we do so without really paying attention to the words.  The prayer is more about rote memory than something which comes from the heart.  Yet, as we pray for God's Kingdom to come on this earth even as it currently established in the heavenly place, we pray a prayer that is very much in keeping with the spirit of Advent.

We have the parables of Jesus to guide us as we seek to understand what the Kingdom of God looks like and what it would mean for it to be established firmly in our midst.  Certainly, the Kingdom completely present in our midst and in our world would be a turned upside down world.  A Word from the second chapter of Isaiah can serve as a guide for praying for this turned upside down world:  Father God, in these troubled days, we pray for Your mercy.  We pray that common sense and peace would prevail, that weapons which destroy would be turned into implements that produce, that killing one another would be replaced by caring for one another, that war would no longer be seen as an option among the nations of the world.   Come, Lord Jesus, come,... but quickly.  Amen.(Isaiah 2:4)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent II

Advent is unlike any other season on the Christian calendar.  Listening to the music alone tells us that something is different here.  It has a style that is wistful, hopeful, and somehow longing.  It is music which anticipates and always seems to leave something hanging in the air when it is completed.  "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is an example as it begins with the words, "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears..."   The melody matches the words making it far different from the regular Sabbath musical fare.
One of the Old Testament passages read during these early days of Advent comes from the 65th chapter of Isaiah.  The prophet is speaking to those in exile.  The Hebrews are in a strange land.  They are watching their children grow up immersed in a pagan culture, one hostile to the values that were once taught when life was lived in and around Jerusalem.  In the 10th verse of that chapter comes the voice of God speaking, "I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress."  Those in that lonely place of exile hear this word which tells them a new day and new order is about to be brought into being.
How we long for such a Word.  So many today live in places where there is little about which to rejoice.  For many life is filled with so much of the same routines of life that it seems there will never be a better day.  Yet, the Word of God in these days not only calls us to long and hope for this new day to come, but it invites us to believe that it will come simply because it is in the heart of God to restore His people to wholeness. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent I

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Advent knows it is somehow associated with Christmas.  These are the ones most surprised with the message which comes out of the early days of the season.  These are the ones who are expecting baby Jesus to be on the stage immediately and who also experience some irritation with those who insist it is not yet time.  Looking for the manger and all its familiar faces is hardly preparation for the first refrain of Advent which basically sounds the message that the Jesus who came to Bethlehem will come again as One who will finally establish His reign over all the creation. 

It is, of course, a message that is all over the gospels.  Matthew 24 tells us that not knowing the time of Jesus' return does not alter its certainty.  Mark 13 sounds a warning to those who would somehow think He will not return.  Luke 21 speaks plainly as it says, "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory."  This message about Jesus returning to establish His reign is not something reported in a way that might lead to some skepticism, but was obviously spoken so much by Jesus with such seriousness that it it could not be ignored by those who were intent on communicating divine truth to the growing body of believers as well as the world around it.

As Advent begins, it is always with this message about Jesus coming to establish His Kingdom.  The fact that so many think it to be a strange time to consider such a Word does not change its certainty.  The One we only want to remember as a harmless, sweet babe in a manger will come again to bring to the world and its people divine accountability.  The scripture makes it clear.  He will come.  As surely as He has come, so He will come again.  And, so Advent reminds us to live as one who is each day ready for His appearing.